Many Americans have turned to astrology, the study of correlations between celestial patterns and temporal events, to make sense of tumultuous times. Despite reports of popular astrologers called out for failing to predict Covid-19, astrological services are in high demand. From private consultations to horoscopic forecasts across multiple media, people are eager to know when the pandemic will end and how it will affect their lives in the long run.

But Western astrology is more than the use of oracular techniques to answer immediate and personal needs. It is a field of interpretive practices rooted in metaphysical claims about how universal archetypes structure the passage of time and animate the metanarratives we recognize as history. To modern astrologers, the pandemic and its wider transpersonal and world-historical implications are expressions of recurring cosmic motifs, each iteration of which brings trials and transitions to be endured and existential lessons to be learned. Analyzing this cosmological perspective as a form of historical consciousness, rather than just a function of occult superstition or “fortune telling,” is an important step toward better scholarly understanding of how people who practice and engage with astrology perceive the moral valences of time. It also highlights models of futurity that are not bound to strictly secular or religious teleologies, but fall somewhere between the progressive flow of homogenous, empty time and a temporality that is polycyclic and preordained, where everything that goes around comes around.

Though few professional astrologers specifically predicted that a coronavirus would bring the world to a standstill in 2020, and global systems to the brink of collapse, the timing and severity of the pandemic came to them as no surprise. The year 2020 was a topic of anxious speculation in the astrology community long before Covid-19 became a household word. The reason was an unusually intense series of planetary transits. This began in January with a rare “conjunction” between Pluto, symbol of death, power, and inexorable change (and still a “planet” in astrological terms), and Saturn, the planet of structures, authorities, and boundaries, deep in the zodiacal sign of Capricorn. The year will end in December with a similar rendezvous between Saturn and Jupiter in Aquarius. Astrologers have read these and other celestial developments as symbolic indicators of trauma and transformation, a period of earthly reckoning perfectly synchronized to the rhythms of the cosmos.

To explore the nature of such assumptions, it helps to sideline familiar criticisms of astrology that rest on charges of superstition, pseudoscience, ignorance, and deception. This is no easy task given longstanding public suspicion and indignation even among academics. In the 1950s, Theodor Adorno famously lambasted modern astrology as retrogressive fetishism, which derives its authority from a “façade of pseudo-rationality” exempt from critical engagement. Adorno abhorred horoscope columns, which he felt epitomized the worst of what the modern culture industry is capable of. He argued that by reifying structural forces and unconscious motivations as fate, and by suggesting that social processes at the root of people’s problems will “somehow take care of them,” horoscopes promote authoritarian thought-patterns conducive to the rise of fascism, including conformity, irrationality, and willful dependence on external omniscience.

Much of Adorno’s critique of the socio-psychological implications of horoscopic rhetoric is as compelling as it is grumpy. But the analysis, based on three months of content from the Los Angeles Times horoscope column, is too narrow empirically to account for diverse uses and expressions of astrological knowledge. And by relying to such an extent on attributions of blind faith, paranoia, ego-weakness, and misrecognition, his treatise makes room for virtually no other conclusion but that cultural forms like astrology, and occultism in general, invariably distort social realities and mediate false consciousness.

A less reductive approach might consider how practitioners contextualize concepts and predictions across a wider spectrum of discursive genres, beyond supermarket-aisle horoscopes. As astrology has gained popularity in recent years, aided by digital and social media including YouTube channels, podcasts, online schools, computer software, and countless Instagram memes, interpretive styles have diversified and some of the more technical and elaborative aspects of the field have increased in visibility. Areas of specialized and esoteric knowledge are more accessible than ever, influencing and amplifying the social perceptions of even casual enthusiasts, as well as popular conceptions of the cosmos, spirituality, and the self.

One such area is “mundane astrology,” techniques and principles specific to the study of world-historical cycles. Although its applications are future oriented, mundane astrology, like other forms of anticipatory knowledge, deals in broader temporal frames. To predict or speculate about the future, mundane astrologers often seek to maximize their knowledge of the past. They engage in a kind of interpretive work that is predicated on expertise regarding astronomical measurements and symbols. This work relies as well on drawing comparisons between historical events from the recent and distant past, insofar as they involve the same planetary signatures and are seen to instantiate similar archetypal themes.

In the lead-up to the recent Saturn-Pluto conjunction, astrologers looked back to major events from the synodic cycle that began with their last conjunction in the early 1980s, a time of economic recession, high unemployment, Cold War tensions, heightened Middle East conflict, and the dawn of the AIDS crisis. The nearly four-decade cycle included an “opposition” between the two planets, which was associated with the September 11 attacks and the US-led War on Terror, and a transit known as a “square” (a 90° angular distance) during the 2008 financial crisis. As January’s conjunction marked the culmination of this cycle, and the beginning of a new one, astrologers indicated that whatever happens in 2020 will echo archetypal themes from all these events, however subtly or indirectly, and offer indications of what the next cycle may have in store. Astrologers surveyed previous Saturn-Pluto cycles as well, such as those associated with World War I, the rise of Nazism, and the bubonic plague. Some paid special attention to the conjunction of 1518, the last time Saturn and Pluto met in Capricorn, which coincided with beginning of the Protestant Reformation, escalations in the transatlantic slave trade, and the “dancing plague” of Strasbourg.

The broad threads tying these and other historic eras together in the astrological imagination are paradigmatic as well as syntagmatic. Some astrologers, like scholar-practitioner Richard Tarnas, contextualize them as “cycles of crisis and contraction,” periods of extreme social pressures and power struggles, empires rising and falling, natural disasters, and intensified collective experiences of disruption, upheaval, hardship, oppression, and eventual resolution. Whatever the final outcomes, Saturn-Pluto dynamics are the proverbial shocks to the system, indicating tectonic shifts resulting in the collapse, renewal, and/or reconfiguration of life-governing structures and institutions.

The coronavirus pandemic, as it came to light, was thus readily interpreted among astrologers as the centerpiece of a liminal transition from one historical-astrological epoch to another. Prolonged isolation and instability were (and continue to be) construed as the universe’s way of forcing societies around the world to slow down, take stock of their values and resources, and prepare for new realities, both catastrophic and auspicious, looming on the cosmic horizon. Scholars and critics often reduce such conceptions to psychological mechanisms like confirmation bias. Be that as it may, the astrologer’s process of connecting the dots between archetypal principles and real-world events can reveal what people who affirm these principles believe humanity is up against and what they think the future holds in the grand scheme of things.

There are almost as many opinions as there are interpreters for what comes next. Celestial patterns and paradigms are in constant flux, and the astrology community is as varied and contentious as any knowledge-producing field. Like all forecasters, astrologers’ outlooks change and evolve with the times. In the wake of protests following the murder of George Floyd, much attention has shifted from the confinement of Covid-19 to matters of racial justice, equality, and political accountability, hallmarks of the radical humanitarian idealism of Aquarius, the site of the upcoming “great conjunction.” If the pandemic was the global reality check, Black Lives Matter is the cosmic call to action. Such views are championed by an emerging vanguard of younger astrologers, many of whom are LGBTQ and people of color, who are keen to pursue new integrations of spiritual, esoteric, and social praxis.

Overall, however, modern astrology tends to be less about engineering social change and dismantling structures of oppression than it is a medium for personalized practical advice, affirmation, and emotional or spiritual growth. Western astrologers encourage their readers to trust in the wisdom of cycles, and in the idea that while things will surely get worse before they get better, changes of any kind always have purpose in the long run, by order of divine providence (variously defined). It is a perspective that does not rule out human agency, and very rarely assumes direct causality on the part of celestial bodies, but at times suggests a kind of fatalism and ahistoricism that critics like Adorno find so troubling.

And yet, it is a mistake to assume that “cosmic consciousness” automatically precludes historical consciousness. The point of taking astrological discourses seriously is not to evaluate their accuracy or prescience but to recognize that they are expressions of cultural knowledge, and even critique, which practitioners actively cultivate to understand better the present in light of actual pasts and possible futures. They are efforts to historicize the conditions of existence, which at this moment compel every one of us to acknowledge the precarious and volatile state of the world we have made, a predicament that is neither unprecedented nor random.

When it comes to world-historical predictions, Western astrologers are no strangers to hyperbole. Warfare, political unrest, revolutions in technology or finance, and other seismic shifts in culture and consciousness are nearly always on the table when major planetary transits are involved. But regardless of the circumstances, or how vague or concrete such claims may be, astrological divination is as diagnostic and prescriptive as it is predictive. Never just a question of mitigating uncertainty, it is for practitioners and enthusiasts a way of classifying moments in time, putting them in their right place, as it were, and contemplating movement forward. These are impulses not entirely foreign to the minds of secular moderns who narrativize history in dialectical and thematic terms. Yet for astrologers, historical volition is tied to planetary and celestial cycles, of which there are many, and which are used to decipher what the universe is up to, and to figure out the difference—to paraphrase Adorno’s compatriot, Walter Benjamin—between when to ride the locomotive of history and when it is time to pull the emergency brake.

Special thanks to Courtney Bender, Francesca Bregoli, and Mona Oraby for valuable feedback on drafts of this essay.